‘Bows looking to “bring back Aloha Stadium feeling” ahead of home-opener
BY PAUL BRECHT | HONOLULU
PUBLISHED AUG 30, 2023
HONOLULU — The Run-N-Shoot is back, baby.
Week 0 for the Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors showed many things as year two of the Timmy Chang era got underway, but none were more prevalent than the effectiveness of the famous University of Hawai’i football offensive scheme.
The best example of that?
‘Bows junior QB Brayden Schager enjoyed a dynamic 2023 debut against Vanderbilt, throwing for career-best 351 yards to go along with three touchdowns (matching his performance against someone in ’22). Entering his first season without a quarterback competition at the start of it, the signal-caller looked in command of the offense as he tore up a Vanderbilt secondary that continues to look for answers after a tough showing last season.
The emergence of redshirt freshman Pofele Ashlock — who earned Mountain West Freshman of the Week honors for going for 7-127-1 on Saturday against the Commodores — coupled with new senior WR Steven McBride, who came to the program this offseason after being underused in the Kansas offense, gave a pair of go-to targets for the Hawai’i gunslinger to almost lead the ‘Bows to an SEC Week 0 road upset.
Instead, UH enters Week 1 at 0-1 as they prepare to take on a rebuilding Stanford program under new leadership in former Sacramento State head coach Troy Taylor. The 2019 Eddie Robinson Award winner, also known as the Coach of the Year award for the FCS, takes over for a Cardinal program coming off a 3-9 season while also losing starting QB Tanner McKee to the NFL Draft.
Luckily for Cardinal fans, Taylor has experienced nothing but success as a head coach. In three seasons for Sacramento State Hornets, the offensive guru went 30-8, winning three straight Big Sky conference titles during his time for the FCS program. He also piloted Sacramento State to being one of the nation’s best offenses, finishing his three-year stop with averages of over 430 yards per game to go along with 43 points each night during a 12-1 finale season at the school.
Taylor has seen the game at all levels, playing quarterback for Cal Berkeley from 1986-89 before being drafted by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the 1990 NFL Draft. While his pro journey wasn’t long (he was released by the Jets following the 1991 season and signed by the Miami Dolphins in 1993 before ending his professional career), he has enjoyed plenty of success as a coach.
Heading into Week 1 of the college football season, the ‘Bows are looking to get back to the .500 mark for the first time since October of 2021 following a victory over New Mexico State. Without further ado, let’s take a deeper look into the names, numbers and matchups to keep an eye out for ahead of this Friday’s Hawai’i home-opener.
History Lesson – Hawai’i versus Stanford (and the Pac-12, kind of)
With just three total meetings before 2023, it’s tough to say there is any type of rivalry between the ‘Bows and Cardinal. In fact, with the last meeting coming over 50 years ago (they last played on Dec. 2, 1972), many fans in attendance Friday won’t have any memory of the last time Hawai’i and Stanford matched up on the gridiron. For Rainbow Warrior fans, creating new memories would be a good thing, seeing as Stanford leads the all-time series, 3-0.
While the history between Stanford and Hawai’i may not have an update to it in this century until now, recent results for the ‘Bows against Pac-12 compared with all other Power 5 conferences has been an area of success. Of UH’s last 12 wins over Power 5 programs, eight of them have been against the Pac-12.
In fact, Hawai’i’s last Power 5 win came in the 2019 season when the ‘Bows took down a pair of Pac-12 members in Arizona and Oregon State. Both of those wins came at home in the old Aloha Stadium, which has since been shut down and seen UH football games be moved to the Clarence T.C. Ching Complex. Last season, it was a much smaller venue than FBS teams typically have in terms of fan capacity (9,000 total fans could be accommodated).
After an offseason facelift and re-work, T.C. Ching Complex will be able to welcome 15,000 fans with open arms this season for Hawai’i home games. With the extra seating available, the ‘Bows are hoping to see 15,000 fans in white for a home-opening “White-Out” game against Stanford.
With more space, ‘Bows players and coaches alike hope to get it feeling like the old days at Aloha Stadium, both on and off the field.
“It’s time,” ‘Bows WR Pofele Ashlock said Monday night. “I feel like this year is going to be a way better representation of how Hawai’i football is supposed to be played, so I definitely expect a whole bunch of footballs in the air and a whole bunch of touchdowns scored.”
“Something similar back to the Aloha Stadium-type of vibes,” Ashlock continued and smiled.
Players to Watch – Hawai’i Rainbow Warriors
Brayden Schager – QB (Jr.)
What will the Texas gunslinger do for his next act?
The FBS leader in passing yards after Week 0, Schager diced up the Vandy secondary to the tune of a new-career high 351 yards through the air as he showed off his new collection of weapons thriving in their new roles in the Run-N-Shoot offense. He spread the ball around well, targeting (and throwing completions to) eight different players in the 35-28 loss to the Commodores.
While he did have a career-best day (27 completions set new mark for single-game for Schager), the junior signal-caller also tossed a pair of costly interceptions in the one-possession loss. In fairness, the first interception was an impressive play by Vanderbilt CB De’Rickey Wright on an attempted throwaway by the QB that floated in play too long and the second came during a point that he had to try and make something happen with time running out. He also only accounted for one true “turnover-worthy” play, according to PFF.
(PFF defines “Big Time Throws” as following – “a pass with excellent ball location and timing, generally thrown further down the field and/or into a tighter window”)
Looking back, Schager tossed 10 interceptions in 12 games last season and had 17 total “turnover-worthy” plays (via PFF). That put him tied for 26th-most turnover-worthy plays among FBS quarterbacks in 2022 and 2nd-most among QBs in the Mountain West. He did record 19 “Big-Time Throws” in his 12 games (10 starts) as well, good enough for a spot among the top-40 QBs in the FBS and tied with the 2023 NFL Draft’s #4 overall pick, Anthony Richardson.
To this point, Schager has been a sliding scale of excitement and head-scratching plays. If he can continue his mastery of the scheme while taking care of the football in 2023, he’s primed for a big year. He will get another good opportunity to show off his growth in Week 1 against a younger Stanford squad that is still figuring out who they are.
Alex Perry – WR (RS-Fr.)
The 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman quietly had a nice performance in the team’s season opener, totaling four catches for 51 yards against the Commodores. Just his second career game for the ‘Bows, the former 5A-Florida High School Basketball Player of the Year showed off some intriguing traits and presented another option for the offense to go to all around the field.
A former three-star recruit, he came into camp 20 lbs. heavier than last season, another testament to ‘Bows head strength and conditioning coach Kody Cooke’s offseason training program for the team. With added muscle, the lanky Perry still moves well and showed signs of ability for yards after the catch.
After Pofele Ashlock and Steven McBride combined for over 200 receiving yards and three touchdowns in Week 0, teams won’t be surprised by the dynamic wide receiver duo anymore. Luckily for the ‘Bows, the wide receiver room is far deeper than two names. Perry was the first one to show signs of chemistry with Schager in-game, but flew under-the-radar enough that he could sneak his way into being this week’s 100-yard receiver in this offense.
Virdel Edwards II – CB (Sr.)
The 6-foot-2 defensive back was the team-leader in interceptions last season, totaling three picks in 13 games (11 starts) in ‘22. He also finished second on the ‘Bows with five passes broken up in ‘22 for a secondary that got reinforcements this offseason in the form of preseason All-Mountain West selection Cam Stone, who came over from conference-rival Wyoming.
Edwards was tested in Week 0, as Vanderbilt threw at him eight times and completed four passes successfully against his coverage. One of those four completions was a touchdown to All-SEC selection WR Will Sheppard, a 6-foot-2 monster in his own right.
Things don’t get easier this week for the ‘Bows as they get to face another big-bodied wideout in 6-foot-5 senior John Humphreys. If the ‘Bows can shut down the Cardinal running game, this will be one of the next most-important matchups.
Players to Watch – Stanford Cardinal
E.J. Smith – RB (Sr.)
Expected to be one of the two featured backs for Stanford this season, Smith is coming off injury that forced him to miss the final 10 games of the 2022 season. In his two games of action, he totaled 206 yards across 30 carries and three scores. He was also good for eight catches for 63 yards and another TD before he went down for the season.
The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer and Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith, he was a four-star recruit coming out of high school in Texas. Ranked as high as 48th by ESPN in the class of 2019, he appeared in just 10 total games across his first two seasons at Stanford. Getting a few more opportunities as a sophomore, Smith flashed before looking primed for a breakout in his junior season.
#Stanford RB EJ Smith does a good job of identifying collapsing gaps & quickly re-directing to a developing one. Also shows subtle footwork to evade low tackle pursuit angles while maintaining speed & balance for YAC. Small sample size in 2021 but some positives for sure #devy pic.twitter.com/JvlorLIYzf— Jason DiRienzo (@allpurposescout) July 21, 2022
Stanford HC Troy Taylor ran an offense that saw a 1,000-yard rusher in 2022 at Sacramento State, running the ball over 100 times more than they threw it. For a back who is looking to make up for lost time and doesn’t have much run on the metaphorical tires yet, Smith looks ready to finally take that step into being a premier back. It helps that he should also have a solid running mate to give him a spell when he needs as he comes back from the injury.
For the ‘Bows, the defense had an impressive showing against Vanderbilt (minus Patrick Smith’s 21-yard TD rush in the opening quarter), allowing under two yards per carry over 26 attempts. That’s a good thing, considering it was one of the weaknesses of the ‘Bows defense last season. Among the 131 FBS programs, Hawai’i ranked 124th with a 56.2 PFF grade against the run.
Taylor won’t hesitate to run the ball and test and see if that Week 0 performance was the new ‘Bows standard or just a fluke.
Casey Filkins – RB (Sr.)
Taking over in the backfield after Smith went down, Filkins had an admirable season before an injury sidelined him as well. The 5-foot-11 tailback rushed for just under 500 yards across five starts (7 total games) and found his way into the endzone four times.
He also was a factor in the passing game, coming out of the backfield to record 17 catches for 205 yards and another touchdown. At 206 pounds, the senior is also someone who could see blocking assignments on passing downs for the Cardinal. His strength, coupled with versatility, will help him get on the field often for a young team.
He’ll likely fall behind Smith in terms of touches, but Taylor’s offense has been friendly for dual-threat QBs in the past and Filkins’ blocking ability will be leaned on. He posted a pass-blocking grade above 70.0 on PFF in four of his seven appearances for the Cardinal in ‘22.
John Humphreys – WR (Sr.)
As previously mentioned, Humphreys stands at 6-foot-5 and 200 lbs. and in five starts had nearly 350 yards receiving last year. Taking a step up in role, he should be one of the main targets for *whoever* Stanford plays at quarterback.
While Sacramento State’s receiving attack was led by a tight end in 2022, it’s fair to think Humphreys could fill a similar role and in turn see production like Pierre Williams had for the Hornets last season. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Williams finished second on the team with 723 yards and nine touchdown catches for the FCS program.
Humphreys is about 20 pounds lighter than Williams but makes up for it with his height. He’ll give Taylor a reliable big target to provide his signal-caller with, as the senior had just two drops while being targeted 47 times last season.
What-2-Watch-4 & Final Thoughts – Stanford @ Hawai’i
Before we head out, here are some keys to keep an eye on throughout the night as Hawai’i opens the newly renovated Ching Complex and hosts one of the few remaining teams in the Pac-12.
- As floated before, run defense wasn’t the strength of Hawai’i a season ago. The ‘Bows passed their first test with redemption against the run during round two with Vandy but will face a more experienced backfield in Week 1. That doesn’t mean Coach Taylor won’t be aggressive too, as he slid into his answer about the aggression UH showed in Week 0 on 4th down and the impact it has on a game plan.
- Can Hawai’i continue to have the same type of offensive success with similar efficiency in their second game of the year? The opener had a little bit of everything through the air, from “Schager Bombs” to the all-important underneath completions to move the chains. UH’s offense created plenty of opportunities and made a bunch of plays last week and even left some points out there with a couple redzone possessions coming up empty. Cleaning up some procedure penalties along with better efficiency on 3rd down could see the aerial attack become even more deadly in the encore.
- Will the UH run game re-appear this week? The offseason was filled with excitement for the second season of RB Tylan Hines, who enjoyed an All-Mountain West honorable mention to cap off the true freshman’s year. Week 0 saw Hines be mostly a non-factor, totaling less than 20 all-purpose yards in 10 total touches. That cannot continue going forward, as the offense will need Hines to build off the end of last season to balance an attack that has multiple weapons in the air. It also likely will not continue, as Chang expressed supreme confidence in the sophomore throughout camp and mentioned expecting him to get a lot of touches this season. Sophomore RB Landon Sims led the way in Week 0 with 38 yards on the ground for the ‘Bows, but it was a tough day on the ground for the Hawai’i offense. They mustered only 1.6 yards per carry, not able to truly play complementary offensive football despite their success in the opener.
- Who wins the turnover battle this week? Hawai’i had opportunities to flip possessions but saw interceptions bounce off the hands of ‘Bows defenders multiple times throughout the night. By comparison, Vandy was able to create a pair of turnovers to save both a touchdown and the game. UH was able to win on many of the margins in their first game but learned that turnovers can flip a script quickly in football.
Hawai’i has a prime opportunity to reach the .500 mark for the first time in two years, taking on a rebuilding Stanford program in their first appearance under a new coaching staff. It’s a situation the ‘Bows are all too familiar with after experiencing it in 2022, but some of the talent on the Stanford roster has a chance to produce at high-levels quickly and Taylor comes in with a winning pedigree.
The ‘Bows are in no position to take opponents lightly and Chang has heaped praise on Stanford’s new head coach for his ability to put together winning teams everywhere he goes. That said, if the UH defense from the second half against Vanderbilt puts together a full game at home, the Cardinal might be one of the teams on the Rainbow Warriors’ schedule “on alert” everyone heard about.
You can watch the game on CBS Sports Network with kickoff scheduled for 5:00 p.m. HT on Friday, September 1. The University of Hawai’i at Mānoa will welcome back the legendary Satale family for “Family Reunion Weekend” while being honored on the field during the first quarter. Gates for “Kickoff at the Les” will open at 3 p.m. with live music and a DJ, concessions, beer garden, Keiki Zone and much more, but parking passes for lower campus must be purchased in advance for the game.
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